The good, bad and horrific of parenting on display at Baltimore's American Visionary Art Museum

The self-taught sculptor and photographer Morton Bartlett was orphaned when he was 8 years old. As an adult, this deeply lonely man began crafting a family to replace the one he was missing.

Bartlett created plaster cast dolls of children for almost three decades. It’s unclear how many he made, but the 16 remaining dolls are half the size of their human equivalents. Otherwise, they are eerily realistic, down to their facial expressions. One, “Daydreaming Girl,” is on public view for the first time at the American Visionary Art Museum as part of the new yearlong themed exhibit “Parenting: An Art without a Manual.”

Bartlett pored over history, costume design and anatomy books and medical growth charts. He often spent an entire year crafting one doll, according to Rebecca Hoffberger, AVAM’s founder and “Parenting’s” co-curator (with Anna Gulyavskaya.) Bartlett, who died in 1992, sewed the dolls’ clothes, created their wigs, posed them in environmental scenes and photographed the results. In one photo, a girl in a tutu strikes an arabesque; a second reads on a divan and a third playfully wags her finger at her stuffed dog.

The dolls radiate innocent joy — but these anatomically correct miniature children give some observers the creeps. Even the youngest exudes a whiff of sexuality. For instance, the girl playing with her dog sits on the floor with her bare legs spread wide. Onlookers find themselves noticing that the hem of the child’s skirt drops down just enough to cover her underpants. Willingly or not, these photographs turn us all into Peeping Tonyas and Toms.

The tension between an idealized view of family life and the frequently flawed reality runs through the more than 200 sculptures and paintings created by about three dozen artists on view in “Parenting.” (One artist is famous — but for his writing. The show includes an original drawing that Khalil Gibran made to accompany his famous 1923 prose fable, “The Prophet.”)

Visitors pass beneath an arch reading “Parenthood — the scariest ’hood you’ll ever go through.”

As Hoffberger puts it:

“We’ve all been parented, whether we choose to become parents or not. These artists are expressing their own life experiences with parenthood — be they good, bad, horrific or sublime. Parenting is a very democratic art form. The poorest parents among us sometimes are loving and nurturing in ways that elude those who are wealthier and have more formal education.”

Dolls and dollhouses have long romanticized childhood and glorified home life, so they crop up a lot in this exhibit, often as a comment on the disparity between a picture-perfect facade and the grisly underlying reality.

For instance, the New Orleans artist Chris Roberts-Antieau crafts “murder houses” — dollhouses with their roofs and front walls ripped away to expose scenes of mass slayings.

AVAM is showing her meticulously detailed miniature version of a Victorian mansion in Westfield, New Jersey as she reconstructs it on Nov. 9, 1971, the day the banker John List fatally shot his wife, mother and three children. In the dollhouse ballroom, the lamp is lit. A miniature newspaper lies folded on a floral area rug beneath a pair of reading glasses. Four sleeping bags contain the bodies of List’s wife, daughter and two sons; his mother’s body was left in her upstairs apartment. Since the corpses weren’t found for nearly a month, they have partly decomposed and are lying in pools of dried blood.

List died in prison in 2008.

What makes the “John List Murder House” an atypical artwork for “Parenting” isn’t that it’s macabre. It’s that Roberts-Antieau chronicled a tragedy affecting someone other than herself.

For instance, the Baltimore artist Chris Wilson’s huge, vibrantly colored painting “Momma’s Boys” is set at his mother’s funeral in 2011 and incorporates part of her suicide note.

At the top of the painting, angels and demons battle over the unhappy woman’s soul.

“Her funeral was the hardest I’ve ever cried,” Wilson said, “so white tears are all over the canvas. The prison that I spent 16 years in lurks in the background, still devouring mostly young black men and leaving their moms to fend for themselves.”

Wilson was a traumatized teen who fatally shot another man at age 17 but turned his life around in prison. Since his 2012 release, he has founded two small companies that hire former inmates and begun to paint.

“My mom encouraged my brother and me and told us we could be anything we wanted in life,” he said. “Her last words to me were ‘Chris, please remember how much I loved you.’ ”

The wall texts in “Parenting” raise such provocative social issues as bio-engineering, the increasing numbers of senior citizens raising grandchildren and the population explosion. But relatively few artworks tackle these complex topics, opting instead to tell personal stories. This can result in a slight disconnect for museum visitors.

An exception are two works exploring immigration created by the Baltimore artist Francisco Loza , who works in pressed yarn.

The material has bright, cheerful colors and a fuzzy texture that indicates softness and warmth, but there’s nothing even remotely comforting about his subject matter in “El Otro Lado” (“The Other Side.”)

Men wearing traditional Mexican clothes attempt to scale a high and jagged wall and cross the border to the U.S., depicted with a tattered Stars and Stripes. On the Mexican side of the border, a man hangs from a tree, an apparent suicide. Nearby is a small graveyard marked by stones and a cross.

Self-taught artists such as Loza almost always have something urgent to say. What varies is the technical skill with which they execute their vision.

Among the most proficient is Allen David Christian’s gorgeous “Piano Family” — three life-sized busts formed from piano keys. The wooden keys have been stained a warm golden brown and have subtle red and green highlights. Who wouldn’t want to be part of such a harmonious family?

But my favorite works are the exquisite miniature narrative scenes that Ray Materson made while serving a 15-year prison sentence for several armed robberies committed with a toy gun. (He was released in 1995.)

Materson procured a needle from a guard. To get thread, he unraveled his socks. The tiny artworks — two inches wide and not quite four inches tall — contain an amazing 1,200 to 1,500 stitches per square inch. The result isn’t so much sewn as painted.

In “The House on York Road,” the sky gradually deepens from light aqua to robin’s egg blue. The porch pillars are partly in shadow. A boy sits on the front steps next to a baseball bat. On the porch above an older woman sits with her back to him, a basket of yarn at her side. Grandma Hattie was the most stable adult presence in young Ray’s life. She taught him to embroider and sew.

In the wall text, the artist writes that this piece celebrates “the glory years” of his Ohio childhood.

“Grandma Hattie would often sit in her rocker on the front porch and embroider designs onto handkerchiefs, tablecloths and pillowcases,” he writes. “I recalled her peace of mind and gentle smiles as she pursued her talent. Serenity and peace of mind were what I desperately longed for while living in the vile world of prison.”

“Parenting: An Art without a Manual” runs through Sept. 1, 2019 at the American Visionary Art Museum, 800 Key Highway. $9.95-$15.95. Call 410-244-1900 or visit avam.org.

mmccauley@baltsun.com

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